Thomas Coughlan: The brilliance of The NZ Project

Thomas Coughlan finds Max Harris's book 'The New Zealand Project' sketches a new politics for New Zealand

In 1993, the Swiss government had a predicament. Reliant on nuclear energy, the small, landlocked country was short of a site to store toxic waste from its power plants. The government began reviewing sites around the country where the waste could be caused with minimum disruption. Unsurprisingly, few towns jumped at the prospect of hosting tonnes of nuclear waste, but Swiss citizens knew that the country needed nuclear energy and somewhere would need to front up.

The village of Wolfenschiessen, home to just 2100 people, was one site under consideration. In the shadow of the government’s deliberations, economists Bruno S. Fey and Felix Oberholzer-Gee conducted a survey of residents’ appetite for the waste storage proposal. 

To their surprise, a very slim majority said they would support the project, should the government decide the village was the best site for it. The economists then posed another question: whether the residents would support the plan if given monetary compensation. Surprisingly, support for the project dropped from 51 percent to 25 percent. Adding extra incentives didn’t work. The villagers held firm even when offered as much as US$8700 per person.

Miles away, in Israel, a nursery conducted its own experiment in incentivising behaviour. Noticing that parents were not collecting their children on time, it decided to impose a fine on parents whose children were left late. Instead of unleashing a wave of parental punctuality, the fine came to be regarded as a fee for additional childcare and the nursery recorded an increase in the number of children being left late. After just twelve weeks, the school stopped fining parents, but their behaviour didn’t change; children were still left late at the same rate as when the fine was being collected.

These two anecdotes come from American political philosopher Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Published in 2012, the book was an all-out assault on the blinkered economic thinking that became the new religion of policymakers following what many now call the neoliberal revolution.

The point of these anecdotes, says Sandel, is to demonstrate first, that people are capable of making moral, value-based decisions that are ostensibly contrary to their immediate self-interest and second, that applying narrow, economic incentives to a primarily value-based scenario doesn't always produce the desired effect. The change wrought by these values is often irreversible.

In our age, we seldom contemplate whether, as Machiavelli once claimed, the ends justify the means. Though they rarely stoop to Machiavellian levels of depravity (well, Judith Collins has been known to quote him from time to time), our politicians are forever experimenting with new, more expedient or cost effective ways to achieve the same ends. Social bonds, for example, use a radical, market-driven approach to deliver ordinary welfare state services. This is true across all areas of government: in health, education, justice and welfare. Sandel argues that the means we choose to achieve our ends are not inert — they have real value and without considering whether our means have the right value, we risk distorting the ends to which they are put.

Though notably absent from the book’s citations, Sandel looms large over Max Harris’s The New Zealand Project, which has shot to the top of the non-fiction charts since its release this month. It’s not hard to see why. He lays out a compelling and energising vision that sketches a new politics for New Zealand. It’s an ambitious project that dispenses with narrow, economic decision-making and places Harris’s ‘cornerstone progressive values’ (referred to as the three Cs), care, community, and creativity at the heart of policy.

He pushes his aim on two fronts: First he argues there is an inherent good in replacing the allegedly valueless system at the heart of our government with real values; second, he claims that doing so is efficacious, achieving its aims better than the allegedly efficient neoliberal model. 

The current valueless system isn’t valueless at all, he argues. Our technocratic, incentives-based policy has ushered in a state that succeeds only in enriching the wealthy, whilst failing at its most basic functions.

The book canvasses a broad spectrum of politics and policy. From an energising debate about how to push decolonisation forward, to a blistering critique of prison privatisation and the justice system, to an optimistic vision of how to engage young people in the political process.

It’s a brilliant book, reading almost like a beachhead for a new wave of progressive politics. In laying out what is broken and how he thinks it might be fixed, he sets out his New Zealand project, but for the project to succeed, its readers must be empowered to craft their own.

At its weakest points (which are few) it seems to suffer from an identity crisis of sorts. Is it political theory? Kind of. It lays out and critiques the rationale that drives so much of our politics and policy – less blind economics, more values.

But it’s not really political theory as we know it. Unlike political thinkers stretching back to Plato — let’s highlight Aristotle, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, even Sandel, for example — the book doesn’t spill any ink setting out how human minds might arrive at these values and what makes them so essential (in a Platonic sense). How do we know what care, community and creativity are? How do we know that the electorate will arrive, uncoerced, at these values as the ones that should be placed at the heart of the political system?

What’s implicit, lurking under the surface is a reliance on a kind of natural law that would ideally bend our decision making to a ‘right’ values-based choice. It would be cognisable only in the sense that it was perhaps ‘written on the heart’, in the memorable words of 16th century English jurist, Christopher St. Germain.

Without this sort of foundation, it’s difficult to see how a neoliberal world, which privileges the amoral morality of the likes of Anglo-Dutch thinker Bernard Mandeville, would be so easily converted to Harris’ three Cs. Can we really believe that left to value-based decision-making, people and governments would find the right virtues?

The half of the book that isn’t political theory is policy. Each chapter posits several suggestions, often cherrypicked from successful schemes in other countries, which Harris convincingly deploys to suggest that his unashamedly optimistic vision is achievable. He looks to Australia for a more considered Asian foreign policy and Norway for a more enlightened approach to justice, for example.

His policy suggestions are inspired, particularly in areas like decolonisation. Harris, a Pākehā, treads carefully here, but injects a welcome urgency into the need to ramp up decolonisation in Aotearoa. It’s a layered vision of decolonisation, focused on Pākehā owning and acknowledging their position, according greater Mana to Māori leadership in Government, and, most importantly, backing and resourcing Iwi and Hapu to deliver social services and governance to their members.

His chapter on prisons is similarly inspired. With a background in justice and prison reform, Harris excoriates our criminal justice system, which seems to serve only to damage further the inmates and the society they will belong to upon release.

Elsewhere, the book’s prescription is a blend of old Keynesian economics and modern millennial values. Harris is frank that he sees the state as the best deliverer of social services. Combined with increased taxation to pay for a dramatic expansion of the state, which would itself reduce inequality, the book proposes a seductive, if not novel, formula for tackling rampant inequality and the deterioration of our social services.

At its weakest, the book fails to live up to its own values. Within pages of arguing in favour of the role played by traditional media and securing its future by bolstering it with more generous state funding, Harris says Facebook might be used to submit select committee submissions and engage youth in the processes of government. It seems discordant to at once decry the privatisation of state services, while simultaneously suggesting that a serial tax dodger with an abysmal data-protection record and an apparent vendetta against traditional journalism might be a suitable candidate for the outsourcing of one of our democracy’s most important functions.

New Zealand stands at a crossroads in its history. From William Pember Reeves to Michael King, the abiding trends that I can find in the country’s identity are pragmatism and possibility. From the first Polynesian settlement, which quickly morphed into the Māori culture, to Kate Sheppard, the Clarion Settlers, Seddon’s Liberals, the ANZACs, the First Labour Government, Ed Hillary — even, at a stretch, Fred Dagg, New Zealand and New Zealanders have always tested the limits of what is possible in this land. 

For most of our history, we have put our pragmatism at the service of what is possible — sometimes to our surprise. Now, our political system has delivered the reverse. If there is an abiding memory of the Key years it is that we allowed our sense of the possible to be circumscribed by an ever narrowing conception of what was pragmatic.

The real success of this book is its call-to-arms assault on narrow-minded government: to test the bounds of what might be possible, and to challenge each of its readers to discover for themselves what that might be.

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